Accused of Murder

Years ago I put up a short post on films noir shot in color. I included at the end a list of movies I had found online that were supposed to fit the bill. While I had seen most of those titles at that time, there were, however, a few which had eluded me. Having recently caught up with Joseph Kane’s Accused of Murder (1956), I can now say I’ve viewed all of them. I can also state that, despite my own broad and inclusive approach to such categorization, this movie falls outside of the parameters of film noir. To me, it’s a straightforward crime or mystery picture.

There are gangsters and night clubs, cops and killers, but there’s not a lot of ambiguity on display. The opening scene sees Ilona Vance (Vera Ralston) making her debut singing in a club and watched by the man who (apparently without her knowledge) has secured the job for her. He is Frank Hobart (Sidney Blackmer), and he has just made the fatal mistake of double-crossing a mobster and compounded that error by threatening the enforcer (Warren Stevens) sent to put the squeeze on him. After Hobart tries to pressure Ilona into spending the evening with him, and she declines, his body, replete with a .38 slug, is discovered round the corner from a cheap clip joint. A bad break for Hobart of course, but it’s not good news for Ilona either as she was the last person seen in his company. There is a witness, a tired and jaded hostess (Virginia Grey), who could place the scar-faced enforcer at the scene of the crime but she has her eyes on the main chance. The investigation falls to the cautious Lieutenant Hargis (David Brian) and his impulsive subordinate Sergeant Lackey (Lee Van Cleef), whose contrasting methods and views of the suspect provide the meat in the ensuing drama.

Joe Kane was a prolific filmmaker, a Republic “house director” who took charge of all kinds of movies, but is probably better known, or more highly regarded, for his westerns. In spite of the large number of films he made in the course of his long career, I have only seen a handful. Shot in Naturama, a ‘Scope format used by Republic, Accused of Murder is a very colorful affair. Some of the early scenes have a noirish look, taking place at night and featuring the kind of lighting and angles commonly associated with that style or genre. For the most part though, it has a bright and sunny appearance, and the ultra-widescreen process is only intermittently used to its best advantage.

I get the impression that the movie was aiming for the glossy and polished look of a Ross Hunter production (admittedly, the presence of Virginia Grey, who appeared in more than a few of Hunter’s films, might be influencing me here) but it doesn’t quite achieve that. I’m not sure whether it’s the exclusive use of studio sets or the art direction, but there is more of a television vibe than anything else. Kane’s sense of pace is fine, however, and the story never outstays its welcome. This is just as well as the plot is a thin one and  wouldn’t have stood up to unnecessary padding or stretching. As I said earlier, there is no real ambiguity, and even if there is an attempt to add a twist towards the end, it still plays out without any surprises. The script was by W R Burnett, adapting his own novel, and bearing in mind some of the other films from this source (High Sierra, Dark Command, The Asphalt Jungle, to name a few), one might be forgiven for hoping for something with a bit more punch.

So, here we have another Republic movie where Vera Ralston was handed the lead. Last year, I looked at The Flame, where I felt she did reasonably well without ever being the least bit memorable. Her work in  Accused of Murder is, however, weaker. Firstly, the writing does her no favors by having what feels like countless people telling us time and again how sweet and good she is;  this drains all doubt from the viewer’s mind about a role where one ought to be wondering which of the two cops on the case has a handle on her true character. Ralston does what she can with the part but she wasn’t the most expressive actress at the best of times and there is little real sense of anguish or turmoil conveyed. I think David Brian tended to be more enjoyable in villainous or less sympathetic parts, he had that kind of face, but he could and did play sympathetic types equally well. He grounds the movie as the thoughtful cop attracted to the chief suspect yet unable to entirely shake off his reservations.

Speaking of actors with a face best suited to an unsympathetic part, Lee Van Cleef surely ranks high among them. Accused of Murder afforded him the opportunity to snarl and smirk to his heart’s content, and his ultimate conversion consequently feels slightly disappointing. Warren Stevens has a ball threatening and terrorizing all who get in his way, and he is genuinely intimidating. Virginia Grey had that weary look down pat, a faded glamor that was well used in those aforementioned Ross Hunter pictures. Her would-be chiseler comes in for some rough treatment from Stevens and this adds a real edge to the movie. Smaller supporting roles are filled by Barry Kelley, Frank Puglia and a whiny, sweat-stained and unscrupulous Elisha Cook Jr.

To the best of my knowledge, Accused of Murder has not had any official release on physical media anywhere. Nevertheless, it is easy to track down online versions of the movie for viewing, and in remarkably good condition to boot. I don’t feel it is a film noir, although I should also say I find myself increasingly of the opinion that labels are of little importance. As a film, it is so-so; it holds the attention, looks attractive and features a few solid performances, yet it never rises far above mediocre. Even if I wasn’t bowled over by it, I’m certainly pleased to have seen the movie and I suspect others may get more out of it.

The Purple Plain

One of my reasons for starting up this blog in the dim and distant past was to try to drum up a  bit of interest in films that had been neglected to some extent. The passage of time has seen me broaden those aims of course, but I like to think I still focus sporadically on the kind of movies that don’t always get so much attention.  One such movie is The Purple Plain (1954) from Robert Parrish, a director whose work I find very appealing for the most part. It is a story of war, of survival, and of unexpected romance and has at its heart notions of renewal, rediscovery and rebirth, themes which have enriched so many classic westerns yet which are used skillfully and successfully here.

The on screen caption informs us that it’s Burma in 1945, the latter stages of WWII. Of course the war has not yet ended and the mental strain of the long years of combat and the attendant losses is brought into sharp relief by the opening scene. A man is shocked into wakefulness by the sounds of an imminent air raid. Startled, he darts out into the night, pounding along the primitive airstrip towards his plane, determined to get it aloft and to stand at least a fighting chance. His crew seem unaware of the danger though and as he struggles to sense this into them it becomes apparent that his grip on reality is tenuous. This man is Forrester (Gregory Peck), a Canadian pilot who is clearly suffering from PTSD.

This is further highlighted when his moodiness, disassociation and recklessness are seen to alienate almost everyone he comes into contact with, all but two people anyway. The first is the medical officer Harris (Bernard Lee), a thoughtful, humanitarian type who regards Forrester as a challenge as opposed to some hopeless lost soul. It is through the efforts of Harris to encourage Forrester to establish contact with others again that he encounters the other person who is able to reach him. Anna (Win Min Than) is a resident of a local Christian mission and it is she more than anyone else who manages to penetrate the tortured cocoon which Forrester has constructed around himself.

Here we have the emotional hub around which the movie revolves, and it is a powerful one. It needs to be too because Forrester is shown to be a man who has abandoned life itself, who has not only been scarred by the war but has dedicated himself to dying. In short, Forrester is about to plunge into a spiritual abyss. For a man to haul himself back from such a precipitous position requires both iron resolve and an all-consuming motive. That motive is the simple love he has inspired and in turn been touched by. This has to be credible, credible enough to make a man start to regain an appetite for living, and credible enough too to sustain him when he finds himself cast into the wilderness and facing the twin trials of not merely surviving but ensuring the salvation of those dependent on him. In The Purple Plain it feels wholly credible at all times.

Given the right material, Robert Parrish was a director capable of great sensitivity, able to tap into some deep humanist reserve to produce works that linger in the memory. For me, The Purple Plain is one of those movies where direction, writing, cinematography and performances all mesh perfectly. Working from a story by H E Bates, Eric Ambler (one of the finest thriller/espionage novelists of the 20th century) fashions a script that is compact, accessible and absorbing. Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography is lush and evocative, using nighttime filters attractively (which is no mean feat), while future director Clive Donner edits the whole thing in such a way as to disguise the limitations of the budget. Parrish brings all of this together with great assurance and skill. The visuals have a style and economy that is is admirable, a case in point being an early flashback sequence, a fast cut montage combining love, chaos, destruction and loss. We are swept along from intimacy to devastation in just 90 seconds, the director concisely conveying all we need to know about the bleak despair of Peck’s character in that brief burst of action. Visually, Parrish captures and communicates the prevailing mood with aplomb throughout though, from the softness and warmth of the moments Forrester and Anna share to the stark and spartan atmosphere of the wilderness whether by day or by night.

Peck does remarkably good work as a man existing on the periphery of desperation, thrown a lifeline and offered a chance to rebuild his life. He moves effortlessly from the remote detachment at the beginning to a halting, uncertain awareness of a fresh opportunity and then finally on to a grim determination to maintain a hold on life and hope. Underpinning all this is Win Min Than as the soft spoken Burmese with an unshakeable faith and devotion. Perhaps her contribution is even more remarkable given the fact she wasn’t really an actress and this would be her only film role. She brings what I can only describe as intense serenity to her part and the result is that her scenes with Peck have a power and tenderness that is very moving, attaining an almost oneiric quality that builds up to that final shot which is all the more satisfying for its subtlety.

Frankly, the movie is all about those two, which is not to say that Bernard Lee, Maurice Denham, Lyndon Brook or Brenda De Banzie should be overlooked. Each one of them brings something vital to the film and each one lays down a spiritual marker to assist Peck’s character on his path back to fulfillment.

I understand the US Blu-ray of The Purple Plain is presented in a 1.66:1 widescreen ratio. My own copy is the UK DVD, which is 1.33:1, and I can’t say it looked poorly framed. The colors are well rendered and it is sharp and clear. To reiterate what I said at the top of this piece, this is a film that I believe has been afforded less attention than it deserves. It is a fine effort, touching on some eternal themes and presented in a way that is positive, affirmative and cinematic.

The Films of Delmer Daves

Were one to run a poll on the best or most influential directors of westerns during the classic era, I feel sure that the “holy trinity” of John Ford, Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher would come out on top. That, of course, is fair enough given the quality of work produced by that trio. Were the range to be widened to take in directors in general from that era, I feel less confident of predicting the outcome, although I would be surprised if Ford didn’t feature prominently once more. And while such exercises are fun and provide a useful launch pad for discussion and debate  among aficionados, there is that tendency for certain names to dominate and a corresponding likelihood of others getting swept aside or at least shunted further down the line to a point where attention among participants has faded or their enthusiasm has grown muted. All of which leads me to Delmer Daves, a director I have grown to regard as a personal favorite, and the subject of a new book by Douglas Horlock, The Films of Delmer Daves – Visions of Progress in Mid-Twentieth Century America.

As the title suggests, this is a study of the films as opposed to a biography of the man. It is also a book which takes a broadly academic approach too, which is consistent with the author’s background as a former history and education lecturer. This means there are copious footnotes and references to the writings and views of assorted academics, critics and commentators, including Joseph McBride, Andrew Sarris, Blake Lucas, Jim Kitses, and Pauline Kael to name just a few. It is divided into four main sections concentrating on the films in general, the political and social values represented, race, and gender.

Horlock opens with an overview of the films, those directed as well as those scripted by Daves, and takes a look at the critical response to the body of work. There is a presentation of some of the more dismissive or less appreciative critical reactions and an attempt to root out the reasons for such views. There is too an acknowledgment of positive responses, a viewpoint which is shared by Horlock and supported by reference to some of the most memorable and cinematically effective scenes in his films. Horlock also discusses the character of Daves and how he fostered a sense of positivity on the set, something I feel shines through in many of his movies.

Horlock examines Daves’ technical prowess, from his framing and spatial awareness in CinemaScope productions to his carefully rationed use of the subjective camera in Dark Passage. He takes pains to convey how Daves’ use of technical innovation was always backed by the need to create or enhance the humanity of what he was putting up on the screen. He also addresses the criticism sometimes leveled at the director’s endings, an area I once regarded as problematic myself. To my horror, it came to my notice that Bosley Crowther, the prince of critical curmudgeon, took such a view. In my defense, however, I’m pleased to say I have grown beyond that position. Thankfully.

“Daves’s stories are about physical or spiritual regeneration and redemption, and how characters can be fulfilled and benefit their community as well as be served by a society that has the potential for tolerance and benevolence. His films focus on the innate goodness of humans and their potential to make the world a better place, bringing together communities and individuals separated by prejudice and intolerance.”

The whole thrust of the book is, as its subtitle indicates, an effort to link the films of Delmer Daves to the mores and attitudes prevalent at the time they were made. Thus we have a detailed analysis of his war films, such as Destination Tokyo and Hollywood Canteen, and the way they reflect the war effort during WWII, as well as a title like Pride of the Marines, which tackles the difficulties of rehabilitating veterans in the aftermath of the conflict.

Personally, I found the sections which look at the director’s portrayals of both race and gender to be the most absorbing, possibly due to the fact there was increased scope for analysis of his westerns. Drum Beat, Broken Arrow, The Last Wagon and White Feather are all given in-depth and appreciative treatment in the section on race. The chapter on gender has interesting points to make on the way Daves portrayed men and women and their interactions on screen, with his late career melodramas being well represented as well as major works such as 3:10 to Yuma.

All told, the book offers a comprehensive analysis of Daves’ body of work, both as a director and as a writer. It’s fully indexed and sourced and it is at its best when Horlock is presenting his own theories and views, where the writing has more of a flow to it. Where it does feel drier and less readable (or less enjoyable at any rate) are the quoted sections from the writings of some academics. There are a smattering of black and white photos throughout and I feel a few more would have added to the visual appeal. As a fan of the director’s work,I enjoyed it for some of the insights presented and some of the background information I hadn’t been aware of, and it has to be said the author’s research is thorough, not least his use of Daves’ own papers.

The Films of Delmer Daves – Visions of Progress in Mid-Twentieth Century America by Douglas Horlock

242 pages Published 2022 by University Press of Mississippi

(Photos used in this article are for illustrative purposes only and, with the exception of the cover image, do not appear in the book)